Prozac for Fish

Janice Kaspersen - Stormwater Editor

Dozens of chemicals that are commonly found in human drugs and cosmetic products are showing up in an unexpected place: the brains of fish in the Puget Sound.

A study by NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the University of Washington tested the waters for 150 different contaminants. They found 81 of them in wastewater flowing to Puget Sound estuaries.

Researchers tested three things: effluent from wastewater treatment plants, water from Puget Sound estuaries, and the fish themselves. Although they expected to find higher levels of chemicals in the estuaries nearest the treatment plants, they also found unexpectedly high levels in waters farther from the plants that were included as reference sites.

The chemicals in question range from antibacterial compounds to substances found in prescription drugs. Two found in large quantities were metaformin, a drug used to treat diabetes, and fluoxetine, an antidepressant marketed as Prozac. Although many of the compounds detected are not toxic to humans, they are present in concentrations that can affect the behavior, growth, and reproduction of fish like Chinook salmon and Pacific staghorn sculpin. The fact that the substances are found in combination raises further questions about how they might interact and affect fish and other aquatic organisms. Researchers estimate as much as 300 pounds per day of the contaminants might be entering the waters of Puget Sound via treatment plant effluent.

An unrelated study reported three years ago in Scientific American showed that fish exposed to certain human antianxiety drugs such as Valium and Xanax display more aggressive behavior and consume food faster. The fish were more likely to swim into unfamiliar waters, thus putting themselves at risk from predators, and their increased rate of consumption of zooplankton—which in turn consumes algae—potentially lead to an increase in algae blooms.

We can’t necessarily affect what’s coming out of the wastewater treatment plants, but stormwater professionals are very much concerned with keeping surface waters “fishable and swimmable.” The drugs, which are not removed by standard treatment, enter the water in two ways. Some are excreted in urine, but the larger and more damaging source is people flushing their unused drugs down the toilet. More—and more widely publicized—programs to encourage people to return their unused drugs to pharmacies for proper disposal would help alleviate that problem. Eventually, new treatment methods—ozone, for one—might make wastewater treatment plants better able to remove the drugs as well.

Although the NOAA study did not specifically address the potential effects on humans of eating fish with high levels of these substances, it’s a question worth investigating. However, one scientist quoted in the Scientific American article notes that the chances of a person getting a significant amount of Valium from eating contaminated fish is small: “You’d have to eat four tons of perch from the river to get one tablet of the drug.”

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Comments
  • S. Cuffin.

    Water quality issues caused by pesticides, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, etc., have been going on for a long time – you only need to look. But when the agencies/organizations best qualified to look are constantly under siege from interests that don’t want to know – people and the rest of the environmental system suffer. EPA has had a mandate to address pharmaceuticals and other endocrine disruptors in surface water for a while, but that’s fairly hard to do with no funding – and a non-functional Congress.
    While the statement about needing to eat so many tons of fish might hold true for Valium – no one has ever done a study about the combination of so many drugs and other chemicals. Somewhere along the way those in power decided that these compounds are only an issue when people fall over dead (like during a fish kill), but how many of our chronic diseases are influenced by these kinds of factors.
    Years ago (early 90s) the USGS published a study about contaminants in the Mississippi River. The one that caught my eye was the morning rise and fall of caffeine downstream of the major population centers. I often think of that study when I hear politicians deny that humans can have any effect on the planet.
    So is this yet another story where we just shake our head and move on – or are people willing to re-engage and start working the problem?

    Reply
  • RICARDO CAMILO GALAVOTI.

    Well, it makes me very concerned about the effects not only for humans, but specially about ecological cycles and about a possible biomagnification occurring in water environments. And more, each drug has a potential for unusual sinergetic pathways with other drugs, and so on. In 2007 there were more than 32 million chemical products listed, we must think about it. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Jennifer.

    More programs need to be put into place to properly dispose of old prescriptions. I recently called my pharmacy (Target) to see if I could bring them some expired prescriptions and they told me they were unable to accept the medication. Some agencies offer drug take-back events, but those seem few and far between.

    Reply

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